And Now It's Newt's Turn

The former Speaker for the House may enjoy support as an alternative to Mitt Romney, but one way or another, he will be brought down by the party establishment


The Iowa caucuses are still several weeks away, but the race for the Republican nomination has already been the wildest on record, a stomach-churning roller coaster ride.  There isn't an expectation that hasn't been confounded.

The presumed --- the anointed --- front runner has all along appeared, on paper, to be more than plausible.  Mitt Romney is clearly intelligent, quick on his feet, knowledgeable, accomplished, with a record of sensible moderation.  He has what the professional pols used to call "heft."  It appears he's led a life so blameless one is tempted to suspect him of lack of imagination.  He possesses an extremely attractive and photogenic family who would look simply splendid on a White House Christmas card, and he is himself handsome enough to be a movie star in the Gregory Peck mold.  It's not hard to see him as a president.  It's easy to believe he would handle the job competently.  But four serious problems have emerged for him in recent months.

The first is that selfsame record of sensible moderation.  Today's GOP is neither sensible nor moderate.  When audiences applaud the prospect of a sick indigent dying untended on the street, and boo a gay soldier stationed on the front lines in Iraq, you know the train has jumped the rails.  Romney's prior support of gay rights, government-mandated healthcare, and a variety of environmental policies have alienated activists in his party, and it's possible the damage is irreparable.

The second is his manifest lack of anything bearing the slightest resemblance to principle.  He has repudiated any past belief or action that has ceased to be politically convenient.  He has denied saying things when video tape exists of him saying it.  His volte-faces on an amazingly broad range of questions are too well known to be rehashed here, but trust me, if you're not familiar with the full gamut now, you will be before the primary season is over.   Commercials demonstrating all this must already be in the can, just waiting for airing.

The third is his religion.  In keeping with their swing to the extremes in other areas, the Republican Party has become a party dominated by fundamentalist Christian ayatollahs.  Virtually every top-tier candidate in the party, and all but one in the second tier, professes to be born-again.  Such people find Mormonism obnoxious, not Christian, an absurd cult.  Distinctions like that might seem crazy and arbitrary to a rational person, but for many Republican activists, rationality is no longer a positive attribute.

The fourth is harder to pinpoint, but may have the most far-reaching consequences.  Like Tom Brown's notorious Dr. Fell, Mitt Romney simply isn't likable.  Or, to be more accurate, there's something positively repellent about him.  He combines a sort of feigned bonhomie with an air of profound, pervasive superciliousness.  His public self in fact mirrors his politics, opportunistic and inauthentic.  He's always reminded me of a very specific type peculiar to American educational life, one familiar, I should think, to most American males of a certain age:  The Boys' Vice Principal.  The one who pretends to be a regular guy, who kids around in the halls and sometimes permits himself the odd "Damn!" or "Hell!", but will bully you into doing something you don't want to do with a false smile of feigned friendship, and who will cheerfully, and with a little too much zeal, deliver stinging corporal punishment on your ass when he deems it appropriate.

So the party has been stuck with a putative nominee who enjoys neither respect nor affection.  And its members have been so desperate not to embrace him, so eager to find a replacement, they have sequentially given their hearts to a succession of thoroughly implausible alternatives.  Michelle Bachmann, who made a reputation (and achieved a measure of YouTube fame) by making wild, unsubstantiated, and frequently downright false assertions on the House floor.  Donald Trump, a preposterous clown of a figure, about whom nothing further surely need be said.  Rick Perry, a certifiable fool.  And Herman Cain, a man so untested and unprepared and unknown that it was quickly clear his greatest claim on any Republican's loyalty was merely that he was still standing, and he wasn't Mitt Romney.  All of these, each in turn, shot to the top of the polls almost overnight, and then, after a modicum of exposure, crashed back to earth.

A Rorschach ink blot could easily have been topping Republican polls;  in a way, and  from the very start, a Rorschach ink blot has been topping the Republican polls.

But the current Rorschach ink blot --- Newt Gingrich, the ink blot du jour --- actually has a long public record and a very public history.  He is a Rorschach ink blot only because a decade and a half has intervened since he played a significant role in public life;  as a consequence, many voters may not recall why he has been in a kind of internal exile during the interim.  Instead, they know he's had experience, he's been around, he has a reputation as a fighter, he proclaims himself a visionary.  And at this point, any chance to designate yet another non-Romney is fast disappearing.  So you hear things like, "this time feels different."  Newt Gingrich is already enjoying a sizable lead in most polls.  He is currently poised to win the Iowa caucuses, make a very good showing in New Hampshire, and run the table in South Carolina.  At which point, he may actually start looking unstoppable.

It's a prospect that causes serious Republicans, the party's professionals, to quake in their boots.  They know Newt, they know his instability and his self-destructive tendencies and his weird grandiosity.  They know he'd be a terrible nominee, and --- should the unthinkable happen --- a catastrophe as president.

In 1963, a couple of days after Harold MacMillan tendered his resignation as Great Britain's Prime Minister, the 14th Earl of Home was called to Buckingham Palace for the ritual kissing of hands, making him MacMillan's successor.  (He quickly divested himself of his title so that he could gain a seat in the House of Commons, and was thereafter known as Sir Alec Douglas Home.)  There were a number of bright and ambitious cabinet members who were vying for the position, who had been waiting their chance for a decade or more, but the choice ultimately fell on Lord Home.  The process by which this happened is a mystery;  there was no vote among the Tories in the Commons, and the choice was obviously not the Queen's, except by constitutional fiction.  Sir Alec was the last prime minister, indeed the last British party leader, to be so chosen.  Somehow, by some mysterious process, the party's establishment, its wise men and elder statesmen, had met in secret, had conferred, had decided.  It was a longstanding political process that more closely resembled doings in the Kremlin than what we would expect in a parliamentary democracy.

And yet, odd and cabalistic as it may appear, I do believe something similar is often at work here in the United States.  The operation may be more covert, and more indirect, and it may not be in service to any individual candidate in particular, but it does strive to keep the governing political dialectic within bounds.  In my lifetime, I can recall only two presidential candidates who were patently anathema to their respective parties' establishment:  Barry Goldwater and George McGovern.  In both cases, the system sputtered and malfunctioned.  Otherwise, the more extreme contenders have all been derailed before they could pose much of a threat.

My prediction is, that's what's going to happen to Newt Gingrich.  He may have the wind at his back right now, but one way or another, he will be brought down.  Opposition research will be leaked to compliant news outlets.  Devastating anti-Gingrich commercials will be produced by campaigns that have no chance of winning.  People who have served with and under Gingrich will trash him in public.  Personal scandals will be revisited, with new and uglier details provided.  Reputable conservative newspapers and magazines will run editorials questioning his fitness.  Much of this has already started to happen, and I'm willing to wager we ain't seen nothin' yet.

Why?  For two reasons.  The first is, the party elders regard the 2012 election as eminently winnable (I'm not sure they're right, although God knows they have the metrics on their side at present), but fear they could toss away their chances with a candidate as tainted as Gingrich.  But the second reason is more admirable:  They also know Newt Gingrich would be a thoroughgoing disaster as president.  They know he's unstable, undisciplined, undependable, unserious.  Many of them, in the privacy of the voting booth, would probably do the unthinkable, holding their nose and vote to re-elect President Obama.  They are not going to let this come to pass.  They too may feel no love for Mitt Romney, but they'll take him if they have to.

Image: Reuters